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Table of Contents


List of Tables and Maps
List of Acronyms
Preface to the Ninth Edition

Part I

The Latin American Tradition and Process of Development

Harvey F. Kline and Christine J. Wade


  1. The Context of Latin American Politics
  2. A Brief History of Latin America
  3. Actors, Interest Groups, and Political Parties
  4. State Institutions and Public Policy
  5. The Political Economy of Latin America
  6. Latin America and the United States
  7. The Struggle for Democracy in Latin America
  8. Part II

    The Political Systems of South America

  9. Argentina: The Economic Tango Continues
  10. Linda Chen

  11. Brazil: The Politics of Elite Rule
  12. Britta H. Crandall

  13. Chile: From Democracy to Dictatorship and Back
  14. Peter M. Siavelis

  15. Colombia: Is Guerrilla Violence Near Its End?
  16. Harvey F. Kline

  17. Peru: Overcoming the Authoritarian Legacy at Last?
  18. Julio F. Carrión and David Scott Palmer

  19. Venezuela: Political Decay amid the Struggle for Regime Legitimacy
  20. David J. Myers

  21. Uruguay: Balancing Growth and Democracy
  22. Martin Weinstein and Jorge Rebella

  23. Paraguay: The Uneven Trajectory
  24. Sebastian A. Meyer

  25. Bolivia: Changes, Continuities, and Contradictions
  26. Miguel Centellas

  27. Ecuador: Change and Continuity After Ten Years of New Left Revolution
  28. Jennifer N. Collins

    Part III

    The Political Systems of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean

  29. Mexico: Democratization and Violence
  30. José Luis Velasco

  31. Cuba: Revolution in the Balance?
  32. Juan M. del Aguila, Frank O. Mora, and Brian Fonseca

  33. Costa Rica
  34. Mitchell A. Seligson

  35. Nicaragua: An Uncertain Future
  36. Richard L. Millett

  37. El Salvador: Civil War to Uncivil Peace
  38. Christine J. Wade

  39. Guatemala: Breaking Free from the Past?
  40. Michael E. Allison

  41. Honduras: Democracy in Peril
  42. J. Mark Ruhl

  43. Panama: Political Culture and the Struggle to Build Democracy
  44. Orlando J. Pérez

  45. The Dominican Republic: Democracy, Still a Work in Progress
  46. Lilian Bobea

  47. Haiti: Searching for Democratic Governance
  48. Georges A. Fauriol

About the Editors and Contributors


Preface to the Ninth Edition

Howard Wiarda had the idea for this book in 1978. The first edition, coedited by Harvey Kline, was published in 1979, the second in 1985, the third in 1990, the fourth in 1996, the fifth in 2000, the sixth in 2007, the seventh in 2010, the eighth in 2014, and now the ninth in 2017. Although Howard Wiarda’s death in 2015 means that he did not take an active part in editing this edition, his inspiration will always be with those of us who were his colleagues, his students, or who read his many books.

The issues we have sought to examine in all nine editions include how and why Latin America is different from the United States economically and politically; the extent to which Latin American societies have achieved modernization and development, breaking through their dependent and semi-feudal past; what paths of national development the distinct countries of the area have followed (evolutionary or revolutionary; authoritarian, Marxist, or democratic; capitalist, socialist, or statist); and what developments and difficulties of democracy have been encountered in the region. These are large, weighty issues; their importance goes beyond the geographic confines of Latin America.

Each of the nine editions of the book has reflected the major dynamic changes occurring in Latin America itself. The decade of the 1970s was a period of authoritarianism and repression in much of the region with widespread human rights abuses, all of which resulted in theories about the area—corporatism, dependency theory, and bureaucratic-authoritarianism—that reflected scholars’ pessimism about Latin America’s future. Following this, the 1980s was a period of democratization throughout Latin America, with greater optimism about its political future (even though the economic prospects continued to be poor) and newer interpretations that stressed transitions to democracy.

In the early 1990s there was considerable agreement on goals for the region (labeled the “Washington Consensus”) between the United States and Latin America: democracy, economic liberalism, and free trade. By that point most of the authoritarian regimes of the area had given way, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Marxism-­Leninism had become less attractive; democracy and economic liberalism therefore seemed the only viable options. But by the end of the 1990s and continuing into the twenty-first century, although democracy, economic reform, and freer trade were still high on the agenda, a number of cracks had appeared in the prevailing consensus. Democracy was still limited and not working well in quite a few countries: much of Latin America had achieved electoral democracy but not liberal or participatory democracy. Economic reform continued, but the neoliberal agenda had resulted in widespread unemployment and privation in many countries. Trade barriers continued to fall in Latin America, but in the United States protectionist political pressures prevented new trade initiatives. Meanwhile, Latin America moved increasingly away from the United States and followed a more independent policy.

Although Latin America has gone through its political and economic ups and downs over this more than fifty-year period, its society has been massively transformed. These are no longer the “sleepy,” “backward,” “underdeveloped” countries of cartoon and movie stereotypes. Since 1960, Latin America as a whole has gone from 70 percent rural to 70 percent urban and from 70 percent illiteracy to 70 percent literacy. The old two-class society is giving way, a new middle class is emerging, and poverty is slowly being reduced. These figures reflect the massive social changes underway throughout the area as well as the transformation from a peasant-agricultural economy to a more modern, industrial, and diversified one.

In the mid-1970s seventeen of the region’s twenty countries were authoritarian, but today nineteen of the twenty (all except Cuba, and even there changes are possible soon) are democratic—incomplete democracies, but certainly better than the human rights–abusing regimes of earlier decades. Economically, quite a number of the countries are booming, with miraculous or near-East Asian–level growth rates, but others are still mired in underdevelopment. At the same time a host of new issues—rising crime and insecurity, drugs, gangs, social inequality, and globalization—have come to the fore. So, as always, Latin America reflects a mixture of successes and failures, of traditional and modern features, of mixed and often crazy-quilt regimes in an always-­changing, dynamic context.

Latin America is one of the most exciting regions of the globe for the comparative study of economic, social, and political change. In previous decades, the choice of developmental models seemed wide open, representing diverse routes to modernization, but by now the democratic, mixed-economy route seems the main one conceivable, although still with great variation among the countries of the region. But populist regimes dedicated to redistribution also came to power, with varying degrees of success. In most countries, the state plays a major role in the economy, and the private sector is weaker than in the United States. Virtually every social, economic, and political issue, process, and policy present in the world can be found in Latin America. It thus remains an exciting, innovative, ever-changing, and endlessly fascinating living laboratory for study, travel, and research.

Not only is Latin America an interesting area to study, but it has also become increasingly important to the United States. After Canada, Mexico is now the United States’ second largest trading partner in the world. Hispanics have become the largest minority in the United States and are voting in increasing numbers. On a host of new, hot issues—including oil, natural gas, drugs, trade, immigration, tourism, energy, pollution, investment, the environment, democracy, and human rights—the United States and Latin America have become increasingly intertwined and interdependent. Yet conflict persists in US relations with Cuba, Venezuela, and other countries. At the same time, both Europe and Asia are also increasing their trade with and interest in Latin America and as a result, are often competing with the United States for influence. So is Iran.

This book offers in its first part a broad, region-wide overview of the patterns and processes of Latin American history, politics, society, and development. It then proceeds to a detailed country-by-country treatment of all twenty Latin American countries. Major countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela receive extended coverage, and the smaller countries receive complete but somewhat briefer treatment. Each country chapter is written by a leading specialist in the field. To facilitate comparisons between countries we have asked each of our authors as far as it is feasible to use a common outline and approach. We emphasize throughout both the unique features of each country as well as the common patterns and processes that exist. Instructors thus have maximum flexibility in the selection of which countries to study and which themes or developmental models to emphasize.

Latin American Politics and Development has throughout its previous editions emerged as one of the most durable yet innovative texts in the field, and we hope that this ninth edition will intrigue new students of Latin America as it has stimulated two generations of earlier ones. Many of these students have now gone on to careers in business, academia, private agencies, or foreign policy; it is always rewarding to meet, hear from, or run into these former as well as current students. We hope that some of our enthusiasm for the subject continues to inspire them.

The editors wish to thank our contributors, both new and old. In this edition, in addition to the new co-editor, there are nine new contributors. Seven of the contributors are from Latin America, the highest number of any of the editions. We also wish to thank Raquel Gómez Fernández for her research assistance.

Finally, we wish to thank acquisitions editor Katharine Moore of Westview Press for encouraging this new edition and shepherding it through the publication process.

Harvey F. Kline
Christine J. Wade



Latin America is not a single, homogeneous region. Although the region’s countries offer discernible patterns of political and economic development, its diversity is a key factor in explaining variances in these patterns. In this book we use the term “Latin America” to mean the twenty countries south of the United States in which the people speak a language that evolved from the Latin brought by Romans to France and the Iberian Peninsula. This diversity is reflected in the twenty independent countries selected for this book. Hence there is one country that was a colony of France (Haiti), one that was a colony of Portugal (Brazil), and eighteen that were colonies of Spain. Although the Latin American countries share to some degree a common basis in law, language, history, culture, sociology, colonial experience, and overall political patterns, which enables us to discuss the region in general terms, we must recognize that each country is different and becoming increasingly more so.

Unity amid diversity is a theme that runs throughout this book, to some extent affecting institutions, economies, and social relationships. Accelerated economic and social change, democratization, and globalization are having an impact, often incompletely and unevenly. Latin America still has abundant poverty, malnutrition, disease, poor housing, and the worst distribution of income in the world; its economic and political institutions often fail to work well or as intended; and social and political reforms are still strongly needed. However, at least some of the countries—generally the larger, more stable, and richer ones—are making what appears to be a definitive breakthrough to democracy, and many of the small countries are changing as well.

During the past twenty years a consensus seems to have emerged: namely democracy in the political sphere; a modern, mixed, and in some cases social-democratic economy; and greater integration with the rest of the world. Today there are more Latin American countries with elected leaders than ever before. Democracy is the preferred form of government in Latin America, even though it does not always work well or quickly enough. Democracy takes forms that are often different from that of the United States and it is still threatened by upheaval, corruption, and vast social problems. Globalization affects Latin America in all areas of life: culture, society (behavioral norms), politics (democracy), and, above all, economics. Latin America is now part of a global market economy. It has little choice but to open its markets to global trade and investment. That said, the Latin American countries vary greatly in how they manage development policy, and they are still debating their choices about the basic model to follow.

As Latin American countries have become more democratic and their economies more open, they have balanced outside pressures and domestic, often traditional, ways of doing things. Modernity and tradition often exist side by side in Latin American countries—the most traditional agricultural methods alongside the most modern ­skyscrapers—reflecting the mixed, often transitional nature of Latin American society. Patronage considerations often remain as important as merit and electoral choice. Moreover, as democracy has come to the region, it has often been a more centralized, executive-centered form of democracy rather than one of separate and equal executive, legislative, and judicial branches. At the same time, despite privatization and neoliberalism, the state has remained a strong force in economic and social programs, closer to the European tradition than to the US laissez-faire model. Thus development in Latin America has represented a fascinating blend of US, European, and historical Latin American ways of doing things.

A Framework for Analysis

This book has two chief objectives: Preliminary chapters offer brief overviews of Latin American history, parties and interest groups, government, political economy, relations with the United States, and the struggle for democracy. The chapters of parts II and III give in-depth analyses of the twenty countries.

In order to better understand the changes and continuities of Latin American development, the coeditors asked the authors of the twenty country chapters that follow to keep in mind the following questions. Although the coeditors recognized that Latin American countries are so different that not all questions would be relevant in all countries, we believe this framework can provide a deeper understanding of Latin American political development; it is also fundamental to the comparative analysis that is at the heart of this book.

Changes in Political Culture

Has the political culture changed? Until the 1930s, Latin America had often been feudal and medieval in its thinking, but then education increased, literacy expanded, and radio and television brought new ideas to even the most isolated areas. To what extent have the old fatalism and passivity faded? How have people become mobilized, and have new and challenging ideas of democracy and socialism arisen? More recently, the digital age and its accompanying technologies—computers, the internet, smartphones, and social media—have transformed communications and improved access to information. As countries and technologies have democratized, has the relationship between state and citizen changed? Have fundamental beliefs, ideas, and attitudes toward governments and institutions shifted over the past two decades?

In the country chapters that follow the authors will analyze among which groups these ideas are changing, how deep and extensive the changes are, and what impact a changing, more democratic and participatory political culture has had on institutions and policy. The authors will also describe how people feel about government, as well as how they perceive their relationship to it.

Economic Change

Are Latin America’s economies now more diversified, and are most no longer dependent on one export crop? Are these economies larger, more complex, and more integrated into world markets? Have they shifted away somewhat from the state control and mercantilism of the past toward a system of open markets, freer trade, and greater efficiency, and have more modern businesses, industries, and services replaced the subsistence and plantation agriculture of the past? How have these changes created new jobs and opportunities, or given new dynamism to the economies of the area? These changes have reduced poverty throughout the region, although in many cases the gap between the rich and the poor is greater than before. As a result of this uneven development, are some groups and countries doing much better than others? All of these changes, the positive and the negative, carry important political and policy implications that vary from country to country. What is the role of the state in reducing inequality and alleviating poverty in this post-neoliberal era? How free are states to craft their own economic policies given global realities?

Social Change

Have social changes taken place, and have they been accompanied by an increase in political pluralism and tolerance? To what extent do these changes support the development of democracy in the country? Is the old landed oligarchy giving way to a more diverse panoply of business, industrial, commercial, banking, and other elites? A sizable middle class has grown up in every country, ranging from 20 to 50 percent of the population. Labor unions have organized, peasant groups have mobilized, and in some countries the urban employed poor are becoming politicized. In addition, there are new women’s groups, community organizations, civil society organizations, and indigenous movements. Some of the older groups such as the military are also undergoing change, becoming more middle class, less elitist, and more professionalized. Roman Catholicism is being challenged in many countries by Protestant evangelicalism, which often involves quite different values and attitudes toward work, social policy, and the role of family. In the last half century Latin America has gone from being mostly rural to two-thirds urban. Have these changes been accompanied by an increase in political pluralism and tolerance? To what extent do these changes support the development of democracy in the country?

Political Institutions

Have all these social changes and the far greater social pluralism led to changes in political institutions? Have elections become more routinized and more honest, and are they generally accepted as the only legitimate route to power? Are other governing institutions being modernized as well? Are political parties better organized than in the past, with a real mass base and real programs and ideology, as compared with the small, personalist, and patronage-based parties of the past? Are there many more interest groups, NGOs, and civil society organizations than ever before, whose agendas need to be satisfied? Finally, is there growing pressure on government agencies and institutions to modernize, increase efficiency, reduce corruption, and deliver real goods and services?

There are other trends that suggest that Latin America’s transition to democracy is perhaps less than complete. Do legislatures and court systems generally remain less powerful than the executive branch? Even in the post-caudillo era, does the government remain dominated by a strong president who has a number of enhanced powers not typically associated with separation of powers systems? Has this tension between democracy and authoritarianism become increasingly prevalent in recent years, as populist leaders from the left and right have sought to extend their time in power? Although the military and police operate under civilian rule throughout most of the region, is the military increasingly assuming new security functions? Are the armed forces among the most trusted state institutions, and are they more trusted than civilian institutions? Finally, have decentralization and the strengthening of local governments enhanced democratization?

In each country chapter the author will consider the level of democracy in the country. To do so the authors will consider four key dimensions posited by authors who have written about democracy in Latin America: (1) Are the head of government and the legislature elected in fair and open competitive elections? (2) Does the great majority of the population have the right to vote? (3) Are political and civil rights protected, including freedom of the media, freedom of speech, and freedom to organize? (4) Do the elected officials exercise real governing power and are not overshadowed by the military or other nonelected groups?

Public Policy

Is the government being called upon to provide a host of new public policy programs and reforms? These may address agriculture, family planning, education, economic development, the environment, housing, health care, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, among other areas. Although patronage and clientelism remain prevalent in many countries, there is increasing pressure on the government to offer real policy solutions to real problems. Is the government dealing with a host of complicated policy issues, including reducing inequality, addressing climate change and environmental resource issues, confronting crime and drug trafficking, and dealing with migration? What factors shape public policy responses? How effective are the region’s governments in addressing their most pressing problems?

To what extent are laws passed by the national government enforced throughout the country? Are public policies applied throughout the country or are there areas where they are not because of the challenges of geography—the mountains, the tropical rain forests, the distances between the national capital and the outlying regions? Does another difficulty come from the Iberian heritage of passing laws that, either intentionally or unintentionally, are simply unenforceable? Do the legal systems include enough properly trained police officers to investigate crimes and detain lawbreakers, and is the court system too understaffed (or inexperienced) to carry out trials against the ones who are arrested? Does this situation engender lack of respect for the laws, and are prisons overcrowded with individuals awaiting trials? Do such insufficient rule of law and impunity undermine the quality of democracy and erode public confidence in institutions?

The International Environment

For centuries, Latin America was isolated from the world, but now some countries are becoming more closely integrated—politically, culturally, and economically—into it. Has globalization come to the country? Have the values of the citizens, especially of young people, become more democratic, less authoritarian, less religious, and less traditional? Is the country now a part of the global economy, with good consequences (increased trade, commerce, jobs, affluence) and negative ones (currency uncertainties, fluctuating market demands, capital flight)? Has the country signed new trade agreements and courted new, international investors, notably China? Or is the country looking inward, cultivating economic relationships within the region? Is the relationship of the country with the United States less antagonistic than in the past, and has the country increasingly demonstrated a more independent, less subservient attitude in dealing with its neighbor to the north?

Conclusion: The Crucial Questions

All of the trends reflected in these questions have had a profound effect on Latin America, but they vary between countries and within institutions and even individuals, which continue to show complex mixes of traditional and modern attitudes and practices. In the second decade of the new millennium, we need to know just how democratic Latin America in general and individual countries are. Are the changes sufficient to provide a firmer basis for pluralism and democracy? Equally important, how can we better understand the nature and meaning of democracy in Latin America? How successful are the reforms in favor of free trade and open markets, and to what extent have they improved living standards in the region? How responsive are political parties, interest groups, and government institutions? Now that the Cold War is over, can US–Latin American relations be put on a normal, more mature basis, and what of Latin America’s relations with the rest of the world? These are some of the crucial questions that this book tries to answer.

Chapter 1

1: The Context of Latin American Politics


Latin America is a region of great linguistic, ethnic, geographic, and economic diversity, both within and between countries. Despite this diversity, Latin American countries share a history of political turmoil and a pattern of political development.

Including South America, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean island countries of Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, Latin America encompasses 8 million square miles (21 million square kilometers), about one fifth of the world’s total land area. Its population is about 600 million, almost twice that of the United States. The former Dutch and British colonies in the area are also interesting and worthy of study, and although they are part of the geographic region of Latin America, they are not culturally, socially, religiously, or politically “Latin” American. For this reason, they are not included in this book.

The social and racial composition of Latin America is exceedingly diverse and complicated. At the time of Columbus’s “discovery” of America in 1492, some areas (Mexico, parts of Central America, Andean South America) had large numbers of indigenous people, whereas other areas did not. Even today the assimilation and integration of indigenous people into national life remains one of the great unsolved problems of these countries. Where there were few indigenous people or they died out, and when the climate was right for plantation agriculture (such as in the Caribbean islands, northeast Brazil, and some coastal areas), large numbers of African slaves were brought in. White Europeans formed the upper class and blacks were enslaved; indigenous people worked for the Europeans who had the responsibility to care for and Christianize them, and many worked on the land, either in small landholdings or as workers on large estates. Social and race relations in northeast Brazil, the Caribbean islands, and other coastal areas would then be written mainly in terms of the relations between whites and blacks. On the rest of the mainland the major socioracial components remained white and indigenous. The cultures of the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and the Portuguese in Brazil, because of the African influence, were often different from those in the other Spanish-speaking countries. In some countries, all three major racial strains (indigenous, black, white), as well as Asian and Middle Eastern, are now present.

In contrast to North America, where the colonists arrived with their wives and families to settle and farm, the conquest of Latin America was a military campaign (no women initially), and widespread mixing between whites and indigenous people, whites and blacks, blacks and indigenous, and their offspring, took place right from the beginning. This gave rise to a mulatto (white and black) element in the Caribbean and Brazil and a mestizo (white and Indigenous) element in the mainland countries of the Spanish empire, with endless social and racial gradations based on color, hair, and facial features. Although there is racial prejudice, because of these many variations and gradations, Latin Americans tend not to typecast people as “black,” “white,” or “indigenous” based solely on color as North Americans do. Indeed, in many of the Central American and Andean countries of South America, one is considered an indio mainly if one speaks a native language other than Spanish. Once a person moves to a city, becomes educated, and speaks Spanish, the person would probably no longer be called “indigenous.” In Bolivia, long considered the Latin American country with the highest percentage of indigenous people, after urbanization, many no longer consider themselves to be indios. As such, the concept of race is more fluid in Latin American than in the United States.

The economies of the area are similarly diverse. A few countries (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay) have vast, rich agricultural lands comparable to the Midwest of the United States, whereas in most of the others subsistence agriculture has predominated. Because of climate, only the southern South American countries can grow the kind of grains grown in more temperate climates; hence sugar, bananas, coffee, cacao beans, and fruits have predominated. Mexico and the larger South American countries have considerable mineral wealth and some have oil, but others have few natural resources and are likely to remain poor, regardless of whether they call themselves capitalist or socialist. Based on their resources, some countries—generally the bigger ones with large internal markets (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico)—are “making it” in the global economy and becoming competitive with the most efficient countries. The same is true of the smaller countries of Panama and Uruguay. Another group of Latin American countries is doing moderately well economically and improving their condition. However, a number of countries (Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua) are not doing well at all, and in fact are mired at the lower end of the rankings with the world’s poorest nations.

The Latin American countries differ not only in people and economics, but also in geography. The continent contains the world’s second-highest mountain range, the Andes (over 20,000 feet), which runs like a vertical spine up and down the Pacific Coast. Latin America also has some of the world’s largest river systems (Amazon, Orinoco, Plate) but few of these connect major cities with agricultural areas or provide the internal transportation networks formed by the rivers and Great Lakes of North America. In many countries, mountains come right down to the sea, leaving little coastal land for settlement and agricultural development. Much of the interior land is similarly unsuitable for cash crops, and although some countries have iron ore, few have coal, thereby making it difficult to produce steel, one of the keys to early industrial development. Hence, although nature has been kind to Latin America in some resources, it has been stingy in others, and although a few countries are resource-rich, others are stunningly poor. The rise of commodity prices has helped benefit the resource-rich countries, but those prices could fall again—boom and bust.

One of the most startling features of South America is the vast Amazon basin, stretching nearly two thousand miles in all directions. Largely uninhabited until recently, the Amazon rain forest produces upward of 40 percent of the world’s oxygen supply. Environmentalists seek to preserve this area, but Brazil and other countries on its perimeter see the Amazon’s resources as the keys to their future development. Most of South America’s great cities are located on the ocean coast; only in recent decades have efforts been made to populate, develop, and exploit the vast interior.

Geographically, Latin America is a land of extremes: high mountains that are virtually impassable, lowlands that are densely tropical and also difficult to penetrate, and such extremes of heat, rainfall, and climate that make living and working difficult. Latin America largely lacked the resources that the United States had during its great march to modernization in the nineteenth century, one of the key reasons it lagged behind. The mountainous, chopped-up terrain made internal communications and transportation difficult, dividing Latin America into small, isolated villages or regions and making national integration extremely difficult. Only now, with the advent of modern communications and transportation, have the Latin American countries begun to become better integrated and to develop their vast potential.


The Latin American economies were founded on a basis that was rapacious and exploitative. Under the prevailing economic theory of mercantilism, colonies such as those of Spain and Portugal existed solely for the benefit of the mother countries. The considerable gold, silver, and other resources of the colonies were drained away by the colonial powers. Latin America was cast in a position of dependency to the global powers.

The most characteristic feature of colonial Latin America was the feudal or semi-­feudal estate, patterned after the European model, with Spaniards and Portuguese as the overlords and indigenous people and blacks as peasants and slaves. Even after independence, Latin America remained mainly feudal; only slowly did capitalism and an entrepreneurial ethic develop. However, the economic situation of the colonies varied considerably: The Caribbean islands and northeast Brazil were areas of large-scale sugar plantations, and Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and other areas of Brazil were valued for their mineral wealth. Argentina, Uruguay, and other farm areas were settled later because at the time there were better ways than agriculture to get rich quick.

The vast territory was divided among the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors, who exploited the indigenous labor living in it. Each Spanish and Portuguese conquistador could live like the feudal nobility: haughty, authoritarian, exploitative, and avoiding manual labor. These large estates were mainly self-sufficient, with their own priests, political authority (the landowners themselves), and social and economic life. Few areas in Latin America (Chile and Costa Rica come closest) were founded on a productive, family-farm basis.

It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that these feudal estates began to be converted into more modern, export-oriented capitalist enterprises producing intensively for a world market as well as for domestic consumption. Foreign investment further stimulated this conversion process. From this period of economic growth onward, indigenous people and peasants were exploited even more than in the past or pushed off their communal lands into the infertile hillsides. The result was class polarization and, in Mexico, a violent revolution in 1910.

Production for the export market brought Latin America into the world economy for the first time, with both positive and negative consequences. Greater affluence led to greater political stability and new economic opportunities from roughly the 1890s to 1930s, but it also made Latin America subject to global economic forces over which it had no control, particularly in countries where 60 percent or more of export earnings depended on one crop. Price fluctuations could have dire consequences, especially during the 1929–1930 world market crash, when not only did the bottom drop out of all the Latin American economies, but their political systems collapsed as well. Almost every country in the area had a military coup d’état associated with the depression; Colombia and Mexico were exceptions.

Industrialization began in Latin America in the 1930s precisely because the countries had insufficient export earnings to purchase imported manufactured goods and therefore had to produce them on their own. Most of the heavy industries—steel, electricity, petroleum, and manufacturing—were established as state-owned industries, reflecting the weakness of entrepreneurialism and the history of mercantilism. This system of state capitalism was the beginning of Latin America’s large but often bloated, inefficient, and patronage-dominated state sector.

During World War II and the postwar period, Latin America developed rapidly on the basis of this import-substitution-industrialization (ISI) model. However, growing demand for new social programs outstripped the countries’ ability to pay for them, and then came the massive oil price increases of the 1970s and the debt crisis of the 1980s. Latin America was unable to pay its obligations and many countries slipped into near bankruptcy. Economic downturn again helped produce political instability in the 1960s and 1970s as it had in the 1930s.

In the 1990s and continuing in the new millennium, the Latin American economies began to recover, but in many countries the growth was anemic and debt continued to be a burden. Nevertheless, there was recovery throughout the region and many countries began to reform their economies. In an effort to become competitive in the global economy, many countries sold off inefficient public enterprises, opened previously protected economic sectors to competition, emphasized exports, and sought to reduce or streamline inefficient bureaucratic regulation. They also tried to diversify their economies internally and sought a wider range of trading partners. However, their reform efforts often produced mixed results because, although it was economically rational to reduce the size of the state, that conflicted both with social justice requirements and the political patronage demands of rewarding friends and supporters with cushy state jobs.

Chile, Brazil, and Mexico were the chief leaders and beneficiaries of the new, free-market economic policies. Several countries did moderately well as middle-income countries, but others remained poor and backward, as shown in Table 1.1. Then, the global economic crisis of 2009 brought renewed pressures for state-led growth.

Table 1.1. Indices of Modernization in Latin America, 2014–2015

Source: World Bank. World Development Report 2014.

*Annual percentage.
** 2011–2012 data.
*** 2013 data.
**** Mortality rate, under five, per one thousand live births.


During the colonial period, Latin America was structured on a fundamentally two-class basis. There was a small, white Hispanic or Portuguese elite at the top, and a huge mass of indigenous people, black slaves, and peasants at the bottom, with almost no one in between. The two-class system was a reflection of feudal Spain, of the medieval Christian conception of each person being fixed and situated in his or her station in life, and of slavery. This strict social hierarchy was assumed to be immutable and in accord with God’s ordering of the universe; in Latin America, the rigid class structure was further reinforced by racial criteria. Over time, as miscegenation progressed, a considerable number of mixed-race mulattos and mestizos emerged, often forming a small middle class.

The onset of economic growth in the late nineteenth century and industrialization in the twentieth century eventually gave rise to new social forces, although for a long time they did not change the basic two-class structure of society. In the early stages of economic growth in the nineteenth century, a new business-commercial class began to emerge alongside the traditional landed elite, but this new class thought like the old elite, intermarried with it, and adopted the same aristocratic, haughty ethos. Similarly, as a large middle class of shop owners, small businesspeople, government workers, and professionals began to emerge in the 1930s and thereafter, it too acquired conservative attitudes, disdained manual labor, and often allied with a repressive military to prevent left-wing and lower-class movements from acquiring power. Emerging new social movements were co-opted by the elites and the two-class society was generally preserved.

During the 1930s as industrialization began, a working class also developed in Latin America; by the 1950s and 1960s peasant groups appeared; and in the 1970s and thereafter women, indigenous elements, community and neighborhood groups, and other social movements and civil society also organized. At first the elite groups (large landowners, the church, and the army) that had long dominated Latin America tried either to co-opt these groups as they had others in the past or to send the army out to repress, kill, and intimidate them. The co-optation/repression or carrot-and-stick strategies worked when these new groups were small, heading off revolution or even democracy and enabling the old power structure to survive. However, as the labor movement, peasant elements, and other civil society groups grew in power, the old techniques of co-optation/repression proved less successful. These processes then produced a variety of outcomes in Latin America: dictatorships in some countries, democracy in others, revolution in still others, and in most alternation or muddling along between rival alternatives.

Latin America today is much more pluralistic and democratic than before. There is still an old, landed, oligarchic class in most countries, but it has been largely supplanted by business, banking, industrial (including agro-industrial), and commercial groups. There is now a larger middle class that, depending on the country, may comprise 20 to 50 percent of the population. In many countries, the business and middle classes, rather than the old oligarchies, dominate. These groups tend to favor a stable democracy both because it serves their interests and because the global international community now demands it.

Since 2003 there has been rapid economic growth in most Latin American countries. Higher overall income plus some redistribution of wealth have led to growth in the middle-income sector of most countries. Recent analysis by World Bank economists is that overall, from 2003 to 2013, the percentage of people in extreme poverty declined from 24.1 percent to 11.5 percent. As a result of these changes, the extremely poor are no longer the majority; rather the largest group is made up of people who are “sandwiched between the poor and the middle class . . . who appear to make ends meet well enough as not to be counted among the poor but who do not enjoy the economic security required for membership in the middle class,” a group that might be best called “the vulnerable.”1 Important questions are whether this middle sector has become a “middle class” (stable, prosperous, peaceful, democratic) in any sense and how this still vulnerable sector might have changed its politics.

At lower-class levels, important changes are also occurring. Labor is organizing; peasants are mobilizing and sometimes marching on private lands; new neighborhoods and community groups are forming. Protestantism is growing, especially evangelical groups; and women’s organizations, racial and ethnic groups, and many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are becoming more active. At grassroots levels, many of these civil society groups have organized to get things done, often bypassing the traditional political parties, bureaucratic agencies, and patronage systems. In many countries, however, there are rivalries between these newer, more pluralistic civil society groups and the traditional, patronage-dominated ones. We must also remember that Latin America’s pluralism is still more limited than US interest-group pluralism, more state-controlled, and therefore less participatory and democratic. The number of groups is small, the elites and/or the state still try to co-opt and control them, and interest group lobbying as seen in the US system is often absent. Nevertheless, Latin America is sufficiently pluralist that it is harder now to govern dictatorially, and that means a stronger base for democracy’s survival.


The basic values and ideas that dominate in a society vary from country to country and from region to region. An analysis of the political values of a society includes its religious orientation, historical experience, and standard operating procedures. Political values can be determined and analyzed using literature, music, and other variables that shape the general culture. To speak of political culture, we increasingly rely on information from public opinion surveys. Political culture may change, although usually slowly. There may be two or more political cultures within a given society, and the diverse views and orientations that compose political culture may be in conflict.

Whereas the political values of the United States are mainly democratic, liberal (believing in the classic freedoms of the Bill of Rights), and committed to representative government, those of Latin America have historically been more elitist, authoritarian, hierarchical, corporatist, and patrimonial.

Latin American elitism stems from the Iberian tradition of nobility, the feudal landholding system, and a powerful tradition in Spanish-Portuguese political theory that holds that society should be governed by its “natural” elites. Authoritarianism in Latin America derived from the prevailing elitist power structure, biblical precepts and medieval Christianity’s emphasis on top-down rule, and the chaotic and often anarchic conditions in Latin America that seemed to demand strong government.

The notion of a hierarchy among people derived from early Christian political ideas as well as the social/power structure of medieval Spain and Portugal that was carried over to Latin America. God was at the top of this hierarchy, then archangels, angels, and so on until we reach mankind. Rulers received their mandate from God; land, cattle, military prowess, and high social and political status were similarly believed to derive from the “Great Chain of Being,” God’s unchanging design for the universe. Proceeding down through society, one eventually reaches workers and peasants, who have some, though limited, rights. In the New World, indigenous people and Africans were thought to be barely human. After a long debate, the Roman Catholic Church decided that indigenous people also had souls; as a result, they were given to Spanish conquerors in encomiendas, through which they would work for the Spanish, who had the duty of “civilizing” and “Christianizing” the less-fortunate indigenous people. The church fathers initially decided, on the other hand, that Africans did not have souls and could therefore be enslaved, having no rights at all. It is obvious that this hierarchical conception is profoundly inegalitarian and undemocratic.

Another feature of Latin American political values is corporatism, or the organization of the nation’s interest groups under state regulation and control rather than on the basis of freedom of association. The main corporate groups in Latin America have been the church; the armed forces; the landed and business elites; and, more recently, the trade union movement, peasants, women, and indigenous elements. Corporatism, which is largely unknown in US politics, is a way of both organizing and controlling interest group activity. Corporatism is thus often associated with authoritarianism and an illiberal society, and it reinforces the other undemocratic traits previously mentioned.

Patronage is another feature of traditional—and present-day—Latin American society and politics. In Latin America, patronage historically has been based on a system of mutual obligation: a favor for a favor. This is also a quasi-feudal concept with roots in Greek and Christian philosophy. Patronage manifests itself in various ways, including votes in return for gifts or money, votes in return for a government job, government contracts for friends or relatives, special access to those with good connections, and sometimes whole programs or government offices doled out in return for critical political support. At high levels patronage verges on and is corruption; at low levels, it constitutes the “grease” that keeps the machinery of government working. Patronage is inherently uneven and undemocratic: some are patrons or godfathers, others are humble petitioners.

These features of historical Latin American political values—elitism, authoritarianism, hierarchy, corporatism, and patrimonialism—remained largely intact over three centuries of colonial rule and became deeply embedded in the region’s customs and political processes. However, when Latin America became independent in the nineteenth century, a new set of political values emerged based on representative institutions, even while the old political values remained strong. The result was two sets of political values, one authoritarian, the other liberal, existing side by side and vying for dominance throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. The two sets also had different social bases: the more traditional one centered in the church, the landed elite, and the military; the newer, liberal one concentrated in urban areas among intellectuals, students, the emerging middle class, and some business elements. With no one set of political values being dominant, Latin American politics were often unstable and torn by frequent civil strife between the two.

A third set of values—socialist, Marxist, social-democratic—emerged in the 1930s, particularly among students, trade unionists, and intellectuals. Some of these groups favored a full-scale Marxist-Leninist regime, others wanted a socialist redistribution of wealth, and still others advocated only greater social welfare. The common themes among them included a strong role for the state in directing change, leftist ideology, and anti-imperialism. Fidel Castro and the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution were representative of groups during the Cold War, which in the past often looked to the Soviet Union for support. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union and of Marxist-Leninist movements and regimes worldwide led to a sharp decline in support for Marxism, leaders of a reinvigorated left, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, adopted social-democratic and populist platforms in opposition to neoliberal reforms.

Meanwhile, these historical political values, or at least some of their aspects, are fading. The older notions of authority, hierarchy, and elitism, although still often present, are no longer the dominant political values. At the same time, the traditional groups that were the strongest (the church, the landed oligarchy, the army) are either changing internally or are losing influence. However, patronage and patrimonialism remain.

Latin America has modernized, democratized, and become part of the global economy. Rising literacy, urbanization, social change, immigration, globalization, and democratization are all changing the appearance and culture of Latin America. Public opinion polls reveal that a majority of citizens in most countries supports democratic rule; none of the alternatives (authoritarianism or Marxism-Leninism) has much support. And yet these same polls show that Latin Americans want effective government that delivers genuine social and economic reform.

Democracy and economic liberalism are still weak and unconsolidated in Latin America. They could still be upset in some of the weaker, poorly institutionalized countries. Moreover—and this is what makes Latin America so interesting—the form that democracy takes there is often quite different from democracy in the United States. It is more organic and centralized and still has powerful patronage and corporatism features. Latin America now has formal, electoral democracy; whether it has genuinely liberal democracy may be quite another thing. Although the changes have been vast, the continuities from Latin America’s past remain powerful.


Latin America’s geography, economic underdevelopment, dependency conditions, socio-­racial conditions, and political culture traditions have historically retarded national unity, democracy, and development. However, the great forces of twentieth and twenty-first century change—urbanization, industrialization, modernization, democratization, and now globalization—are breaking down the historical barriers and altering the foundations of traditional Latin American societies. Latin America is experiencing many of the same revolutionary transformations that the United States, western Europe, and Japan went through in earlier times. Latin America has commenced the process, but there the changes are occurring more quickly than they did in those places. The outcome is likely to include a great variety of political systems rather than some pale imitation of the United States. To us that is healthy, invigorating, challenging, and interesting.

Although the changes have been immense and often inspiring, many problems still remain. Poverty, malnutrition, and malnutrition-related disease are still endemic in many areas; too many people are ill-housed, ill-fed, ill-educated, and just plain ill. Wages are too low, the economies and democracies are often fragile, and the gap between the rich and the poor is greater than in any other area in the world. The political systems are often corrupt and ineffective; the standards of living of the rural and urban poor are woefully inadequate; and crime, violence, drug activity, and general personal insecurity are increasing. Social and economic changes often occur faster than political systems can handle them; fragmentation, ungovernability, and collapse are still lurking.


Black, Jan Knippers, ed., Latin America: Its Problems and Promise. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2005.
Clawson, David L., Latin America and the Caribbean: Lands and Peoples. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Keen, Benjamin. A History of Latin America. 9th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2013.
Kicza, John E., ed. The Indian in Latin American History: Resistance, Resilience, and Acculturation. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1993.
Klein, Herbert S., and Ben Vinson. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Langley, Lester. The Americas in the Modern Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
Wiarda, Howard J. The Soul of Latin America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.


1. Francisco H. G. Ferreira, Julian Messina, Jamele Rigolini, Luis-Felipe López-Calva, Maria Ana Lugo, and Renos Vakis, Economic Mobility and the Rise of the Latin American Middle Class, (Washington DC: World Bank, 2013), 1–2.

We hope you have enjoyed this sample of:

Latin American Politics and Development

Ninth Edition

Edited by Harvey F. Kline, Christine J. Wade, and Howard J. Wiarda

Copyright © 2017 by WESTVIEW PRESS

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